Sustainable Living

How Our Need to Shop is Ruining Our Planet

Deep down a part of me loves the mall. That might seem surprising for someone who advocates for buying less stuff, reducing waste, and shopping small, but it’s true. As a teenager shopping malls were the place I could run free without adult supervision. As an adult I spent about a decade working in retail stores and some of my most cherished friendships were forged in those walls. All of that time in all of those stores, though, has given me an up close look at our society’s habit of overconsumption.

Pile of Gifts. How our overconsumption is ruining our planet
Photo Credit: Pixabay

‘Tis the Season for Spending

We’ve just come through one of the most intense spending seasons of the year. If you’re honest with yourself, did you buy something you didn’t need? How about bought something you felt obligated to buy but didn’t necessarily want to? Or maybe bought presents for people simply because you always have? What about–and this is the kicker–buying something to make yourself feel better?

It’s not your fault

Well, at least not all of it. Of course we have personal accountability. We make our own choices, but at the same time, we are products of our society. We live in a world where even being an eco-conscious consumer is unsustainable. Companies green-wash their products with key words like “sustainable,” “natural,” “earth friendly” without true definitions or proof of their claims.

Sustainability is a trend and it sells, so companies jump on board with greenwashing to increase their sales. Not only this, but companies need to drive a profit–even environmentally focused ones.

But the key sustainability metric for businesses has always been economic. Companies that don’t earn a profit by generating more value than they consume will no longer exist. Thus, there is constant friction between the three legs of [the proverbial sustainability stool: environment, economy, society], as each competes for company resources.”

$ustainability is #1, Plastics Today (emphasis mine)

We live in a world that is dominated by capitalism and consumerism–and it is ruining our planet.

Shopping mall overview. How our overconsumption is ruining our planet
Photo Credit: Pixabay

Capitalism and Consumerism are Ruining our Planet

Not everyone reading this post will live in a capitalist society, but I bet a lot of us do. I’m throwing out some big catchphrases, but what do they actually mean?

What is Capitalism?

“Capitalism is often thought of as an economic system in which private actors own and control property in accord with their interests, and demand and supply freely set prices in markets in a way that can serve the best interests of society. The essential feature of capitalism is the motive to make a profit.

What is Capitalism?, International Monetary Fund (emphasis mine)

What is Consumerism?

“Consumerism is the idea that increasing the consumption of goods and services purchased in the market is always a desirable goal, and that a person’s well-being and happiness depend fundamentally on obtaining consumer goods and material possessions.

In the economics sense, consumerism is related to the…idea that consumer spending is the key driver of the economy and that encouraging consumers to spend is a major policy goal. From this point of view, consumerism is a positive phenomenon that fuels economic growth.”

Consumerism Explained, Investopedia (emphasis mine)

Saying that money is the root of all evil is for another conversation, but saying it is a root of our environmental problems is a reality. Am I saying we need to abolish all of our current systems? Not necessarily. But we do need to change the conscious consumer catchphrase from being a marketing target to an actual practice.

Shoppers on the street. How our need to shop is ruining our planet
Photo Credit: Pixabay

An All-Consuming Consumer System

With capitalism’s focus on profits, there is a continual push for sales of consumer goods. When I worked in retail, every year our store would be sent sales targets. These are broken down into daily, sometimes hourly, sales goals that a store needs to hit. Not hitting these targets means you’re not making enough profit for the company and therefore puts your store at risk. It doesn’t matter if what you’re selling is good for the planet. It doesn’t matter if you are just breaking even. The goal is profitability.

Online stores are no different. Just because an online retailer has less overhead than a traditional brick-and-mortar shop, it doesn’t mean they aren’t vying for the same high turnover of merchandise in order to attain high profits.

Fashion Faux Pas

Fast fashion is an easy sector to address because of their blatant targeting of consumers and their need for us to continuously buy. If they weren’t wanting us to do that, they wouldn’t be releasing 7,000 new items a week for us to choose from in an effort to tempt us into a continuous buying cycle.

“It’s hard to overstate how much and how quickly fast fashion altered our relationship with clothing, conditioning us to believe that our clothes should be cheap, abundant, and new… [T]he fashion cycle has become so compressed that it takes just a few weeks, or even less. Americans buy a piece of clothing every five days, on average, and we pay so little for our garments that we’ve come to think of them as disposable.

Ultra-Fast Fashion is Eating the World, The Atlantic

The Repackaging Nightmare

It isn’t just fast fashion that gets creative in trying to drive sales. At the beginning of the holiday season we can all see it in the variety of Advent Calendars appearing on shelves. This year put me over the edge with the number of companies trying out the calendar theme.

I had to take a screenshot of this cough candy advent calendar because I was just mind-boggled at its existence. I have nothing against the concept of advent calendars, but seeing completely wasteful (and, honestly, pointless) ones like a cough candy calendar that is solely a company repackaging their product with hopes of profit, frustrates me.

Ricola Advent Calendar
Screenshot of an Instagram ad

Another blatant repackaging example is my beloved Cadbury Mini Eggs. These used to be a favourite treat at Easter and I’d anticipate their seasonal arrival at the store. Someone in their marketing department realized, though, that if they just tweak their packaging, they can sell an Easter egg product all year long.

It’s a small example of a greater problem. Companies need to make more, put out more, sell more, in order to exist in a capitalist, consumerist world.

Garbage pile
Photo Credit: Pixabay

What a Waste

Production, product packaging, packaging for transport, transportation, displays…the waste creation for a single product is real.

We did a whole sustainable fashion series that addressed the waste created by the fast fashion industry, such as how one garbage truck of textiles ends up in the landfill every second. Or how the industry uses enough water to fill 32-million Olympic sized swimming pools in one year, with a projected growth in water usage of 50% by 2030.

But what about the waste from our personal over consumption and pointless spending?

Consider the following:

  • “Americans throw away 25% more trash during the Thanksgiving to New Year’s holiday period than any other time of year. The extra waste amounts to 25 million tons of garbage, or about 1 million extra tons per week.” (Stanford University)
  • “52% of Americans admit to opening up at least one unwanted holiday gift each year. Americans are expected to drop almost $8.3 billion on unwanted presents.” (Finder)
  • “A Third of Canadians (32%) agree they receive at least one unwanted gift each year” (Ipsos)
  • Returning an unwanted gift can still create waste–“5.8 billion pounds of returned inventory ends up in a landfill each year.” (Discovery Magazine)

Everything you buy affects surrounding ecosystems: To manufacture products, it takes energy, natural resources including water and chemicals, and raw materials such as trees or fossil fuels, explains Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “If you waste something, you’re wasting all those embedded resources that go with it.”

How Holiday Gift Waste Impacts the Environment, Discovery Magazine
Christmas bags
Photo Credit: Pixabay

How do I stop Ruining Our Planet?

While I said at the beginning, this problem with our need to shop ruining our planet is not all your fault, that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything to help. In fact, we have to do something on a personal level. “Conscious consumer” can’t just be a catch-phrase; we actually need to be those conscious consumers.

First, start small.

Look at your life and be honest with yourself (okay, this isn’t that small, but it’s important). Change starts where we can acknowledge change needs to happen. Where are you spending unnecessarily? What products do you use that create the most waste? There’s no need to be perfectly zero-waste or minimalist because I don’t think that’s sustainable for most of us. There is a need, however, for each of us to decide what steps we can take to make less waste. Become a true conscious consumer by being aware of the choices you make and the impact those choices have.

Second, have hard conversations.

I’m a part of a Secret Santa exchange with a group of friends every year. This year when we asked for everyone’s list of likes and dislikes, most of us said something along the lines of “I’m not picky! Send anything!” One friend, though, thoroughly laid out things she likes and dislikes, which is exactly what was asked. I respected that so much. She was helping us not waste our money on some thing she wouldn’t use and not create waste by purchasing a useless item.

So have those hard conversations. Be honest. Is there someone you need to stop buying presents for? Is there someone that needs to stop buying for you? Do you want less stuff and need to start asking for experiences?

Whatever it is, starting conversations about reducing waste can be weird and awkward, but it’s necessary. And chances are you’ll find others want to have those conversations too. If they don’t, maybe you’ll start to open their eyes to a new way of living.

Third, think bigger.

Think about what actions you can take that will impact the big players in this problem: governments and corporations. In our post How Your Actions Help the Planet: Multiply Your Impact, I laid out four things you can do to help our planet in a big way. The biggest of these is vote. Our governments are creating the policies, so we need to vote for people that support protecting our planet.

In our post Transportation and Sustainability: 4 Starting Points for Big Issues, I share some ways you can make your voice heard on important issues. This includes contacting your local MLA to let them know what issues you are concerned about. If they don’t hear about it, they may not know it matters to their constituents.

What steps are you taking?

Do you see our need to shop as a contributor to climate change? How are you addressing the issue of overconsumption in your life? I’d love to hear your thoughts and keep this conversation going!

Climate Change Collective
Photo Credit: Michelle at Boomer Eco Crusader

Climate Change Collective

This post is December’s feature blog post for our Climate Change Collective series. The Climate Change Collective is a group of bloggers writing to keep climate change at the top of everyone’s minds. To learn more about this, check out our first post here: Climate Change Collective: What you can do.

Check out the other posts from the Climate Change Collective:

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